The Internet is back in Zimbabwe amid massive civil unrest

A journalist checks the site of online newspaper Al-Ahdath News, at the company's office in downtown Khartoum on December 11, 2017. In a country where media censorship has grown over the years, Baz is among several journalists who have left newspaper jobs and launched online news journals to continue doing what he says is independent journalism. / AFP PHOTO / ASHRAF SHAZLY

Internet services in Zimbabwe have been restored after a 24-hour blackout as the country experienced its biggest civil unrest since independence in 1980.

Despite government’s denial that it blocked the Internet on Tuesday, leading service provider Econet sent messages to its subscribers confirming the government move.

“Further to a warrant issued by the Minister of State in the President’s Office for National Security, through the director general of the president’s department, in terms of the Interception of Communication Act, internet services are currently suspended across all networks. The matter is beyond our control,” read the statement.

The state believes the riots are being organised on the WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter social media platforms. People could only make voice calls during the blackout.

The stayaway – which was called after petrol prices more than doubled overnight on Saturday amid ongoing economic woes in South Africa’s northern neighbour – entered its third day on Wednesday with people looting private businesses in high density areas, taking advantage of the riots that engulfed Bulawayo and Harare.

In Bulawayo’s high-density suburb of Nketa, six women and men broke into supermarkets in shopping centres on Wednesday morning and took just about everything they could get their hands on. A resident in the area who spoke to TimesLIVE over the phone said she suspected that the looters came from other areas.

“They were walking from Nkulumane to raid. No one dared stop them because they were in violent mode. One woman and her husband each had a trolley. She had a child strapped on her back. She kept telling the husband to walk behind her to protect them,” she said.

Looting began on Monday as the chaotic riots caught the police off guard. After a Joint Operations Command (JOC) meeting which brings together strategic departments in the security sector on Tuesday night, the police have started hunting down protesters.

“Businesses invest a lot in stocking their merchandise. There is no justification for looting. Everyone will be identified [and] will be fairly treated in court. Help us identify them,” the police said in a statement.

A police officer said the Monday riots came at a time when many officers had not reported for duty because the number of working days had been reduced to help save on transport costs.

“Our salaries have been eroded by inflation so just like nurses, we had reduced the number of days per week of reporting to work. That’s why there was low police presence in troubled areas,” he said.

Roads remain barricaded with no transport links. People working 8am to 5pm jobs stayed at home, save for critical personnel such as nurses. However, they walked to work.

“I walked 25km. I left early when most of the rioters were probably sleeping because yesterday they seemed intoxicated. I walked back home yesterday. While they harassed people walking from town, they spared me because of my uniform,” said a nurse.

Both Harare and Bulawayo’s CBDs were deserted and the situation remained quiet, with police and state security as well as military officers hovering around.

But for town dwellers, hunger is starting to bite.

“I didn’t prepare for such. I stay with my wife and three children at the flat. We usually buy our grocery provisions at the shop downstairs. Now it’s closed. I had to walk around to literally hunt for food. There’s a commuter omnibus that drives around and stops briefly to sell overpriced food before it takes off to another spot. It’s a mini Afghanistan I tell you – there’s ruin and burnt tyres all over,” he said.

Government suspects that the protests are well funded by foreign elements aligned to the opposition MDC Alliance.

“The prevailing security situation in the country is a culmination of a well-orchestrated series of events by the MDC Alliance working in cahoots with NGOs, civic society, youth organisations, pressure groups and individuals,” said state security minister Owen Ncube.

Meanwhile, at least 200 demonstrators have been arrested, with some of them due in court on Thursday. #ThisFlag leader Pastor Evan Mawarire was also arrested in Harare for allegedly inciting public violence. He will have his day in court on Thursday, represented by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR).